The BioShock series is hands down my favorite line of games—the stories are great, the characters are memorable, and it’s simply fun to both play and to watch as a spectator. The most recent installment, BioShock Infinite, was delayed three times and released almost a year late. With any game so highly anticipated for that long, you would expect a certain level of not only awesomeness, but fully developed story lines and details. The wait was well worth it, and surpassed my expectations for its story line and visual styling. True to BioShock form, each detail of the story line has been carefully planned out, which is largely why these games are so rich in narrative, visually striking, and generally just fun to play, from the underwater city of Rapture in BioShock 1 and 2, to the airborne city of Columbia in BioShock Infinite. With the release of Infinite, the third game in the series, the carefully developed story line draws some clear parallels to the other games, most obviously when the end sequence takes you to visit the Rapture we all know and love from the first release. Some of the themes that occur in each game are perhaps a little less obvious and probably only stand out to those of us who are simultaneously geeks and feminists at heart. That is the role of various female characters that drive the story— they are all either captives or the catalysts of the doom that brought you to each world in the first place.
Historically, in order for a female to have be a main character and have an active role in the story, there were two general types of woman she could be: there’s the big breasted Laura Croft or ass-kicking zombie killing Resident Evil types, or there are the helpless princess types, like Princesses Peach and Zelda. What BioShock has done is attempt to mix the two by creating females that have more substantive roles in the story, without requisite DD cups and tiaras. They have come up with two different ways of portraying women in the game, each fitting nicely into the mold of either daughter or scientist. While on the surface the portrayal is more flattering to women than the historical models, each type, both the new take on the daughter that needs saving, or the brilliant and ground breaking scientist, depict the female characters as catalysts of death and the unwitting bringers of destruction and mayhem. The BioShock women are characterized by either their “daughter-ness” or their naivety—hardly a flattering or positive portrayal, even if it does make for cools characters and an awesome game.
Each of BioShock’s two female-types are comparable across the three games, as well as to the historical models outside of the series. The best place to begin a comparison across BioShock’s games is with Infinite’s heroine, Elizabeth, who is the evolution of the Princess model. The immediate impression of her is that she’s just really cool—men want her and women are ok identifying with her. She has interesting and mysterious powers, a seductive but not over the top gravelly voice, a haircut any women would like, and a dress that’s in the realm of respectably busty, navigating the fine line between alluring and comically voluptuous. But as always, there’s more than meets the eye. While we’re identifying with her on one level, we need to remember that her character, the daughter role, was represented by a bunch of six year olds in need of saving in the first two games—the “little sisters,” who are also defined as tragic lost daughters. Elizabeth is essentially the same character as the little sisters who were sold into labor by the orphanages, or kidnapped by Andrew Ryan and Sophia Lamb, and made to suck the ADAM out of corpses with giant hypodermic needles to satisfy the addictions of crazed psycho killers and cults.
Elizabeth’s direct predecessor is in BioShock 2. Eleanor Lamb is defined by being the daughter of the villain, as well as a former little sister. Her relationship to Elizabeth is clear—Eleanor is Elizabeth. In both cases a parent is the captor, and each is proclaimed with religious fervor to be the holy vessel of the ultimate social change. Eleanor is injected with massive doses of ADAM by her mother, and similarly the place of Elizabeth’s captivity is above a time-space anomaly that prevents her from developing the full strength of her powers to control tears between worlds. Their names are even similar, as are their physical characteristics-Caucasian with rounded facial features, and brown hair of similar styling.
The only real difference between Elizabeth and Eleanor is the game’s narrative timing, specifically the point in the game at with the player saves each girl, creating major differences in the role they play in the story, and how invested the player becomes in their well being The objective of BioShock 2 is to save Eleanor from Sophia, which happens at the end of the game, as opposed to BioShock Infinite, in which you save Elizabeth towards the beginning of the game and have her as a constant companion. By getting to know Elizabeth throughout the entire game, they’ve taken her character development a lot farther in terms of how she affects the story. Getting to know her through hours of game play, we feel more invested in her safety, in her own background story, and the tragedy of her captivity than we ever felt for Eleanor, getting to know her from a distance as a voice that would occasionally be heard in our Big Daddy suit, giving us narrative snacks to progress game play.
In the case of all three games, the girls are kidnapped, held hostage, and require a male hero to set them free. Elizabeth is an obvious step from the little girls of the first games, taking a more proactive role in the story as the antagonist. But she’s still following the same formula: the male hero saves her, and then she spends an entire game following him around or waiting patiently on him, just like the first games where you must transport the children from the corpse they were piercing back to a point of safety.
Notably, this formula of female follower isn’t a new one—dozens of other games, like the Zelda for example, ask you to save a female character. At some point, she’s inevitably following the male hero around. Notoriously, whoever this female character may be, she does nothing but get in the way, making for a frustrating, and much dreaded sequence as a hindrance rather than a help. Not so with the little girls in the first two BioShock games, and decidedly different in the case of Elizabeth. In the first game the player gets to choose whether to set the little girls free, influencing in minute ways the outcome of the game when the little girls come to you as adults while you’re on your deathbed to thank you for saving them. In the second game they take it a step farther, the little girls following you to help you out, and Eleanor who in the end, fights alongside you for the final showdown as a Big Sister. In the third game, we have a consistent main character that follows you, helping you all along by picking locks and tossing you money, health and salts. She’s not getting in the way, and probably more importantly, we’re more invested in her development because she’s a consistent player, not random little girls we catch and release like fish.
The other type of BioShock women is the scientist, who is a fresh take on the Laura Croft model, wielding the power of intellect rather than the physical. In each BioShock game, the scientist serves the same vital role as the cause of all the mayhem. In each case she has made a groundbreaking discovery, and is characterized by her nativity as to the consequences of said discovery, expressed in most cases when she has a change of heart, attempting to right her apparent wrongs.
In the first game, she is Dr. Brigid Tenenbaum, the geneticist who discovered ADAM, creating the little sisters as part of its development. A secondary female scientist is Dr. Julie Langford, who maintained the gardens that supplied oxygen to the city, having descended to Rapture after she was extolled for her groundbreaking, yet radical theories. She eventually decides to charge people to not only access the arboretum, but for the very oxygen it produces—eventually, her madness is what leads to the massive fire that destroys the gardens. Dr. Tenenbaum expresses regret that her discovery brought out the worst of human nature, and is remorseful once she realized that ADAM turned people into drug addled monsters. She takes responsibility for turning the city to ruin at the hands of a crazed, greedy Andrew Ryan who capitalized her discovery. To try to set things right, she asks you, the player, to help her save the little sisters and to release them. Notably, she speaks of them as if they were her own children, again defining them by their “daughter-ness.” By contrast, Dr. Langford, who does not show remorse for her brilliance or opportunism, dies along with her science project. The choice before women of intellect appears to be either to repent for your discovery, or die.
Dr. Sophia Lamb is a clinical psychiatrist and the villain of BioShock 2, having staged a coup d’etat overthrowing Andrew Ryan, the antagonist from the first game. Again, she does not attempt to reconcile her brilliance with the results of her actions, and as a result, dies.
In BioShock Infinite, there are two female characters that fit this mold. The main character is Dr. Rosalind Lutece, the quantum physicist who not only developed the technology to create Columbia, but discovers “tears,” which allow her to travel across various possible universes, through space and time. Through the tears, she finds an alternate male version of herself, Robert, whom she calls “brother.” She and Robert help the villain Comstock take the baby Elizabeth from Booker DeWitt through a tear. It is only at the urging of the male version of herself, after seeing the consequence of their actions, that they attempt to right their wrong by bringing DeWitt into the universe in which the game takes place to save Elizabeth. Like the BioShock scientists before her, it is her discovery that sets into motion the games events. The other major character who fits this description is Daisy Fitzroy, the leader of the rebel group Vox Populi. While historical and racial circumstance prevented her from having credentials as the other women do, her intelligence is obvious as the Vox Populi’s leader. The game dialogue makes sure to point out that while she was held captive, (yes, another woman held captive) by Dr. Pinchot, one of Comstock’s cronies, she proved to have a genius level intelligence, even higher than that of the male Pinchot. Yet she is likewise characterized by naivety of the male’s willingness to manipulate her rebellion, and as a result, is the harbinger of the destruction of Columbia by means of the battles between her rebels and the city’s racist founders. The difference between the two intelligent women is that Dr. Lutece attempts to correct her own mistakes by bringing DeWitt into the world of Columbia and by providing him the occasional enigmatic clues that help drive the narrative. True to the BioShock precedent, Dr. Lutece lives, bouncing between universes. Death is the inevitable end for Daisy Fitzroy, who does not repent, and is stabbed through the back by innocent Elizabeth.
Compare that to the BioShock villains. Two of the three are men, the exception being Sophia Lamb, who serves the dual role of social scientist and villain in charge. There is a reason why the villains tend to be men, and that the women are groundbreaking scientists who unwittingly set into motion the chain of events that make the narrative possible and give rise to the monsters that govern, or in the case of Sophia, become the monster. Even the damsel in distress model has taken a turn towards the theme of death—Elizabeth not only killed Daisy Fitzroy, but kills her father, who turns out to be both the hero we play in the story, as well as the villain Comstock. This is all possible thanks to Rosalind Lutece’s genius.
Innocence versus Intellect
In the BioShock series, women wield the intellectual power, creating in ways that men could not—but they’re too naïve as to not be manipulated by the male villain. Women also hold the power over life and death in the games. This possibility is epitomized by the character of Lady Comstock and her ghost, the Siren. Lady Comstock began to question Comstock’s motives, for which he had her murdered. At the point in the game that you need to access her apartments, you encounter the Siren, who is the maleficent ghost of Lady Comstock pulled back to life through a tear. The Siren has the ability to pull others who have died back to the same half-life state that she straddles through the tears. She is the best example of the power of woman in this game—the power of resurrection, and serves as a warning of the consequences of the female naivety that marks the other ladies of the game.
Most striking is that there are two options available to women, and they are diametrically opposed. The first is that a women must either be characterized as a daughter who needs saving, or as an independent, brilliant yet destructive mind. The choice then is either to be relatively helpless and defined by a relationship to someone else as a daughter, or to take the opposite route of self-empowerment, which means embracing the danger that is knowledge. With the latter choice, the message is that with a woman’s discovery comes destruction through male manipulation. This inevitable outcome leaves women with another two choices: either that the woman must realize her error and repent, or die. Each primary scientist in the games chooses to repent—when the character has such a radical change of heart, forsaking her life’s work, are the game creators implying that a woman must be remorseful of her capacity for invention? Are they making a social statement that although women are capable and intelligent, they should abstain because they are too naïve as to not be manipulated by men, and death is the only outcome? Or is it a simple story line that women are always trouble?
Although those are all possibilities, perhaps the most likely interpretation is reinforced by how narrative driven the BioShock series has been, consistently spanning three games. The narrative is more complex literary commentary, referencing the original story about the dangers of women and knowledge—the fable of Adam and Eve. Adam’s original mate, Lilith, was forsaken because she would not be subservient to and defined by her relationship with Adam—much like women in the games must be defined as a daughter. Adam’s second mate, Eve eats the forbidden fruit, notably from the tree of knowledge, and is the cause of their banishment from Eden. The women in the game, who like Lilith, will not define themselves by association with a man; they embrace their intellectual capacity like Eve choosing to embrace knowledge. As a result, like Eve, the scientists bring about the destruction of Rapture and Columbia, which is often referred to as Eden in the game.
No matter the motive or interpretation, it is impossible to deny that the BioShock games are exploring new territory with their female leads, featuring them as not only drivers of the narrative, but as really cool, strong characters. That they are willing to explore new ways of making women active participants in the narrative, and give them some degree of intelligence and strength of spirit is a huge positive for the modern video game gal.
The obvious theme of the games are social experiments gone wrong, and now the BioShock games have touched on three of the most obvious, and radically different, possibilities—the Ayn Rand model, the socially altruistic model, and the religious model. When a game’s premise is to raise questions about a society’s structure, especially games that are so carefully planned from the beginning, it’s no mistake that they make certain roles for certain genders, and to simply chalk it up to “a male hero sells,” is doing a disservice to the game’s creators. The little sisters in BioShock collect what give people power, and in the most recent Infinite, Elizabeth, Dr. Rosalind, and Lady Comstock/Siren carry the power within themselves. They’re taking these roles in the right direction as strong characters, even if their naivety is the source of all the world’s troubles, and pragmatically by creating a female follower in Elizabeth who is, at the very least, not annoying for game play. Across media, from TV shows, to video games, to blockbuster movies and books, we are seeing stories where a heroine is able to sustain, and make wildly successfully, action stories. A shift is occurring with our story telling medium, something the BioShock series has been trying to do from the beginning. Their portrayal of cool, capable, intelligent women steps closer to reality with each new game.